After our next-door neighbor, old Mr. Sullivan died, his urbanized adult children, none of whom were remotely interested in farming, sold the property, house and barn and acreage and all, pretty much as he’d left it. All they took away with them from that gracious old Victorian farmhouse where they’d grown up were some of the better pieces of furniture. Mrs. Sullivan was in no position to object, having been committed to a facility in Des Moines due to her Alzheimer’s a decade before.
The Sullivan Farm didn’t sell until the following summer. Despite the desirability of the property, our remote rural setting was a drawback. Yet we knew as soon as we saw our new neighbors, the Burleys, that they hadn’t bought the Sullivan place because they were into farming, either. They were so unlike everybody else, that they might as well have been extra-terrestrials in that community of corn and dairy farmers. Our big social event of the year was the Mason County Fair every September. We knew without having to ask that Mrs. Burley wasn’t going to provide any competition to the local women as far as entering her quilts or her baked goods, pickles or preserves at the Fair was concerned. Rivalry was hot in that department between my mother and all our other female neighbors. My mother guarded her blue ribbon-winning sour dough biscuit recipe more closely than some nations guarded their nuclear technology.
A month after the new neighbors moved in without their once having attended church on Sundays, real disapproval set in.
“A shame,” my father grunted over his morning coffee before we left on the first morning of the County Fair. “Some of the most fertile land in the whole state, and they have no intention of planting anything—not even a vegetable garden.”
“I can’t imagine her doing anything that normal,” my mother snorted. “Not with those ridiculous high heels she wears. She’ll just ruin Jeanne Sullivan’s beautiful old hardwood floors.”
“By November, she’ll learn how impractical they are once she sinks ankle deep into the mud,” my father agreed.
“I think she’s hot,” my sixteen year-old brother, Larry, observed with a grin.
My mother glared at Larry sidelong over her coffee cup. My parents lived in the comfortable bucolic farming past of my grandparents and great grandparents with great determination. Which never stopped them from fretting about what would happen to our farm once they, like Mr. Sullivan, became too old to run it. Aside from all her other objections to the Burleys, my mother resented her nose being rubbed in the impossibility of continuing to ignore the 21st century. It was almost never acknowledged, but Larry’s increasing teenaged restlessness at being “buried” here made it obvious he wasn’t going to stay at home once he turned 18. He stoically helped with the milking of our 25 head of Guernseys every morning and evening, but never stopped grumbling that he hated all cows everywhere for eternity while doing so.
It irked me that they lived in the past in other respects as well; because I was their daughter, my parents never seemed to think maybe I might run the farm myself when they decided to retire from it. We were a little buried, I suppose, but I felt more rooted was a better term. I loved our green then gold cornfields and the high, pale blue prairie sky arched over them like the inverted inside of some priceless Chinese bowl. I loved our dramatic summer storms and the windbreaks of big trees fringing our fields and those of our neighbors which were beautiful in all seasons. I even loved the piles of snow we got every winter which buried us in earnest although I was less thrilled with milking our cows on pre-dawn winter mornings. I was fourteen though, and hadn’t yet decided absolutely that farming was for me. I was also aware that our lives were a giant anachronism, and by the time I was of an age to run the farm, all possibility of making a living at it might be completely gone. Best to keep my options open.
I met Mrs. Burley for the first time that afternoon in the preserves tent during the judging. I had a mason jar of my own particular blackberry jam in the competition. Mrs. Marshall had taken the blue ribbon for her rhubarb jam for three years running, and the rest of us were all jockeying to take her place at the top this year. I was up against a field of grown women all of whom were jam making experts, and doubted I was in spitting distance of the blue ribbon, but I knew I had made a mean batch of blackberry jam, all the same.
Mrs. Ogilvy’s red currant jelly was being judged right at that moment and all the women in the tent were watching the way stockbrokers might watch the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange. The current judge from over in Cleveland County was not taking things nearly seriously enough to satisfy the competitors. Judges did not smile or crack jokes. Our collective low opinion of Cleveland County was sinking by the minute. Stone-faced objectivity was required at all times, and this judge hadn’t even held the jar up to the sunlight to observe the beautiful color and clarity Mrs. Ogilvy's jelly had achieved. Mrs. Ogilvy was watching him through narrowed eyes, arms crossed over her pillowy breasts, obviously doubting his competence.
“Excuse me,” a low female voice whispered in my right ear, even as I felt her hand on my right shoulder and stiff edge of her hat brim brush against the side of my head.
I jumped and turned and caught my own reflection in the dark lenses of Mrs. Burley’s huge round sunglasses. Her hand on my shoulder was a human woman’s hand as to shape, number of fingers and the opposable thumb. But after that, it was entirely unlike my mother’s. Mom’s hands were all business, the hands of a gardener and a housekeeper with calloused palms and freckled backs, the nails filed short so she could play the piano at church services. This woman's hand was pale as a glove, the fingers long and thin, and the filed nails—or nail extensions—were painted blue-black with a subtle dark glitter to them and extended a good half-inch from the ends of Mrs. Burley’s finger tips. From neck to wrists to ankles she was dressed completely in black. I wasn’t sure if it was a pant suit of some kind or if it was a form fitting long black dress. All I could think of was how hot she must be on this baking heat. She would have been taller than I was even in flat shoes, but her incredibly high heeled boots forced her to lean down even further. I could only see her face from cheek bones to jaw, and I could see she was beautiful, but the tattoo of a snake wrapped around her throat made me do a double take. And her hat—
Well, local women often wore gardening hats or sun hats, and there was hardly a man in our community who didn’t own a faded feed store cap or two. They were all about practicality to keep the sun out of the wearer's eyes though and nobody wore them as fashion statements. Mrs. Burley’s hat was like an inverted salad bowl of stiffened black net with shreds of sheer black veiling sewn to the crown that spilled down and hung down far enough to cover her shoulders. Her blonde hair hung down even farther. In that tent filled with women in cotton and seersucker summer dresses and teenaged girls in jeans and tee-shirts, all of us wearing some variety of sandals or sneakers, Mrs. Burley looked light years out of place. I saw those glossy dark-tinted lips move as she asked me a question.
“Uh..I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Doesn’t anyone around here understand simple questions?” Mrs. Burley snapped. “I said, ‘where are the livestock barns’, kid?”
“Oh! Sorry. Turn right outside this tent and walk all the way down to the grandstand, then turn right, again.”
“Thanks,” Mrs. Burley muttered and left, walking out of the tent as if she were on a high-fashion runway as top model from a Goth fashion agency.
“So that’s your new next door neighbor eh, Grace?” Mrs. Tarleton asked me, also watching Mrs. Burley leave with avid if disapproving curiosity.
“And what does she want with livestock, I wonder?” Mrs. Patterson muttered.
“I doubt we’d want to know, Betty,” Mrs. Tarleton answered. Everyone turned around and redirected our attention to the judging of the interrupted jam judging which had stopped without my having realized it. I could picture Mrs. Burley outside now, walking along in her strange hat and clothes, and the way conversations would hang in the air unfinished until she’d past. I could picture the heads turning and the whispers begin, as if she were the unpopular new kid at the unfriendly high school that was this fair and this community. Mrs. Burley hadn’t seemed self-conscious, but perhaps it was an act, for her. Perhaps those whispers and those looks raked at her the way they would if she were just another insecure high-school freshman. Why she wanted the livestock barn, I couldn’t imagine what with the wealth of manure that lay on the ground over there, and her with her trouser hems brushing the dust at her heels. Despite myself, I felt sorry for her.
One evening about two weeks later, Dad and I were bringing in the cows for milking. I was looking around for Larry knowing what trouble he'd be if he didn't help with the chores. Fortunately, I saw him come running up the road from the direction of the Sullivan's old house. He avoided Dad and kept his face averted, but I could see he’d come back reluctantly.
“Where were you?” I whispered when I’d deliberately chosen to milk Peach who stood in the stanchion next to Sassafrass whom Larry was currently milking.
“I snuck over to the Burley’s barn,” he whispered over his shoulder. “Heard music playing and found out it was coming from inside.” He chuckled the way he did when he made a joke and wanted to force me to ask him about what it meant. Which almost always meant it was a dirty joke, as he thought I needed to toughen up. Or that he wanted to hold his superior knowledge of the world over my head whenever he needed to feel sophisticated and big-brotherly.
I sat milking Peach for a while, consciously refusing to ask. Sometimes holding out worked on Larry.
“What kind of music?” I finally asked when my curiosity won the battle.
“They were making some kind of music video, I think,” Larry whispered back after making sure Dad wasn’t standing close by. “They’re way more interesting neighbors than Old Man Sullivan, that’s for sure.”
“Were they just playing music, or were they doing anything else?”
Larry laughed in that annoying way, again. “Wouldn’t you like to know? But I wouldn’t want to corrupt my innocent baby sister.”
“Still not telling,” he answered. “I’ll tell you this much though, Grace. They sure as hell aren’t milking cows over there!”